Surveilling Students: The Dangers of Sharing Data Without Considering Privacy
Happy Data Privacy Day! Brighthive is using this often overlooked day of awareness as an opportunity to kick off a series that will look at the importance of data privacy through the lens of current events.

Data Privacy Day is a great way to remind us all of the importance of considering privacy when using and sharing data. In my work and research in privacy I’ve found that too often organizations share data first and only later ask tough questions about privacy. A recent story from a Florida school district illustrates the dangers of this approach.

The Tampa Bay Times recently reported that a Florida school district was sharing student data with the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office. The Sheriff’s Office then used this data to compile a list of students who were “destined for a life of crime.” Students could be placed on this list for anything ranging from receiving a “D” in a class to experiencing childhood trauma. Law enforcement subsequently targeted these students and their families, sending officers to their homes and monitoring their activities outside of school. Neither the students nor their families were ever informed they were on this list.

Even if we ignore the dubious legality of this program, it clearly illustrates the dangers of not considering privacy concerns before engaging in a data sharing effort. The potential harms from violating these students’ privacy are real and risk exacerbating institutional biases.

For example, students could be placed on this list of potential future criminals for being targeted for disciplinary action at school. Nationally, Black students are much more likely to be targeted for disciplinary action than non-Black students, even when the conduct at issue is similar or the same. In their investigation, the Tampa Bay Times found that Black students and students with disabilities in Pasco County schools are twice as likely to be suspended or referred to law enforcement.

This program also ignores potential implicit bias — subconscious opinions of which we are unaware, but influence how we make decisions — within our education system. Implicit bias against people of color is fairly common, even among individuals who are not otherwise actively biased against people of color. Recent evidence has suggested that educators’ implicit bias can negatively impact grades and test scores for Black students.

At a time when we as a nation are once again confronting racial bias in policing, the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office has created a program that will feed more bias into the system. When we create a system based on biased data we will inevitably see biased results.

And it’s easy to see how increased police attention could negatively impact students and their families. An arrest before the age of 26 is tied to a significant decrease in annual earnings as an adult. Even arrests for minor misdemeanors can have serious consequences including loss of jobs, government assistance, or housing.

However, it’s also easy to see how this data could provide valuable guidance to assist and support students. For example, understanding attendance, grades, completion of assignments, and even socioeconomic factors could help to inform important interventions and programs. Free and reduced lunch programs, after school programs and homework and literacy assistance are all programs that could benefit from this type of data. Instead of criminalizing students for this behavior, this data could easily be used to provide support and assistance that could ultimately make them better students and improve their well-being. But privacy and equity have to be central to this type of engagement.

At Brighthive we believe that data should be used responsibly and shared in a way that promotes equity and equality. Living up to that belief requires us to look at the equality, equity, and privacy concerns of any data sharing project before we get involved. If the Pasco County School Board and Sheriff’s Office had stopped to consider how violating student privacy might result in real-world harms this entire program may never have started. But instead, these organizations focused strictly on legality.

The Pasco County School Board noted that their agreement with the Sheriff’s Office requires that student data only be used for “official law enforcement purposes.” School board members also touted that their agreement with the Sheriff’s office includes safeguards for student privacy and requires that the data is only used in legal ways.

Even if we were to assume that the school board’s actions were legal, does it automatically make them acceptable? At Brighthive we would argue no.

Brighthive helps state and local government agencies create frameworks for sharing and using education data in a way that improves outcomes for students, answers critical research questions and improves government services, all while protecting student privacy. The key to creating a data sharing program that protects the data subjects is to build that program around a set of ethics and guiding principles that put privacy, equity, and equality first. At Brighthive we believe that we cannot be satisfied with only asking what we can do with data. We must ask ourselves what we should do with data. We have an obligation to weigh the harms and benefits that our actions will have on individuals, communities, and the public and to build frameworks for the responsible use and sharing of data for public good.